The Faversham Union Workhouse was also known as Gravel Pit House and later as Bensted House, which often confuses family-history researchers.
Before the English Reformation in the 16th century, the task of looking after the poor was undertaken mainly by the monasteries. When these were dissolved, the responsibility became that of the parishes, though their burden was eased by bequests for bread, clothing and the like.
‘Out-relief’, cash dispensed by unpaid ‘overseers’ and raised by local rates, kept people from starvation, but became unpopular because some of the ‘poor’ were simply lazy.
So most parishes opened workhouses and able-bodied inmates had to work, their earnings helping to defray expenses. In the absence of hospitals and sheltered housing, workhouses often also housed the sick and elderly. Indeed, it was not unusual for primitive surgery to be undertaken in them. Before the days of anaesthetics, patients would be dosed with strong spirits to minimise pain. At the Ospringe workhouse in 1805, William Bottle had a leg amputated.
The early workhouses were not specially forbidding in appearance. Some in Faversham area parishes could be mistaken for ordinary homes. The new 18th-century Ospringe building looked like the home of a country gentleman and, as ‘The Old House’, between the M2 at Abbots Hill and Painters Forstal, still looks like one. At Selling, the large range of buildings round a courtyard at Hogben’s Hill later became The Square, now seen as a cluster of desirable residences.
Regimes were often far from harsh, perhaps on the basis of “There but for the grace of God go I”. Sir Francis Head, born in Higham, near Rochester, inspected Kent workhouses in 1834. He found that often at meal-times inmates could eat as much as they wished, coming back not just for second helpings but third helpings.
Acutely class-conscious, he complained: “How can we possibly conceive that the lower orders … will be foolish enough, mad enough, to gain their bread by the sweat of their brow, so long as … there is roast beef and plum pudding, bacon and beans, green peas and mackerel, strong beer and fresh herrings … for those who will cowardly flee from their work?”
More were on the breadline outside workhouses than in them, he found. And when life expectancy was much lower, even those with jobs were keen to pass responsibility for their parents to the parish. “The ancient Greeks revered even the bones of their ancestors; we have taught our peasantry to bequeath their parents, blood, body and bones, to the workhouse,” Head said.
Head’s findings were perhaps coloured by his scorn for Kent’s vast army of farm labourers, whose intellects he rated “little better than those of the horses they drive”. However, there was undoubtedly a problem. Some parishes had already begun to save money by forming ‘Poor Law Unions’ to provide consolidated accommodation.
Such economies of scale worked, and won the blessing of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which provided for ‘unions’, under the control of boards of guardians, to be formed throughout England and Wales. Even more importantly, it finally abolished ‘out-relief’. If you were poor and jobless, you simply had to go in the workhouse.
The Faversham Union
The Faversham Union was quick off the mark. From General Gerard Gosselin, who lived at The Mount, on the London Road, it bought a 4.5-acre site at the west end of what was then known as the Lower Ospringe Road – now simply Lower Road. Within a year, on a site overlooking gravel pits, it had completed a big new complex, which opened on 13 January, 1836. To local people, it soon became known simply as “The Union”, although to save face inmates and others often referred to it as “Gravel Pit House”.
The Board of Guardians that had ensured that the new building at the end of Lower Road was commissioned so swiftly had met for the first time in March 1835. With one representative elected by each parish, and two for Faversham, they were all members of the local great and good – mostly well-to-do farmers, though one was a village grocer (Henry Norrington, from Doddington), one a banker (Edward Jones Hilton, from Faversham) and one a building contractor (Charles Drayson, also from Faversham).
The first meeting was also attended by four magistrates – Lord Harris (of Belmont, Throwley), who presided; the Hon F. R. Harris; General Gerard Gosselin (of The Mount, Faversham) and Norton Knatchbull (of Provender, Norton). Knatchbull’s presence bore a certain irony: his uncle John, a former naval officer, was in Australia as a convict under a 14-year sentence for stealing a pocket-book. Nine years later he was hanged for murder in Sydney.
Sir Francis Head, who had undertaken his survey of existing Kent facilities in 1834 and was the driving force behind the new ones, was there to advise. He told the guardians: “When you reflect that the welfare of the labouring poor will depend on your future proceedings, that their comfort and happiness and their moral character are about to be placed in your hands, I’m sure you feel that your first duty as guardians … is one that should arouse your most serious reflection. You have it in your power to attend to the real interests of the poor; and how capable you are of raising the character of the Kentish labourer.”
That was his rather patronising point of view. The great William Cobbett, visiting the Faversham area in the 1820s, had seen the plight of the poor from a different angle. In his book, local labourers were “the worst-used people on the face of the earth”, condemned to live in “beggarly” houses. The blame wasn’t theirs, but that of the government and of the “West Indians, Nabobs, commissioners and others of nearly the same description that have selected the area for their residence”. By the first two, he meant retired plantation-owners and army and naval officers.
It was in one of the new union workhouses that Oliver Twist unwisely asked for more. Allocations were indeed strict, but the Faversham Guardians, who kept their finger on the pulse by meeting weekly, were equally strict about seeing that foodstuffs were of reasonable quality. Redman Brown, a local grocer who had won the cheese contract, was browbeaten for delivering cheese that was “very bad and not at all of the quality contracted for”. Inmates had some creature comforts, too – sheets as well as woollen blankets.
Christmas Day in the Workhouse
Ironically, children who arrived with their parents had a better chance of being educated than poor youngsters living at home. For three hours a day, they had to receive tuition in reading, writing, arithmetic and the Christian faith. At the start, this was of poor quality, but at the insistence of the Poor Law Commissioners it improved with the appointment of an experienced teacher in 1845.
Christmas Day in the workhouse – a celebration satirised in popular verse – wasn’t at all bad, either. In London, the Poor Law Commissioners had ordered that there be no special dietary relaxations. This was on the basis that many poor families whose wage-earner was at work couldn’t afford a luxury meal, and so why should the workhouse jobless and their families be better off?
However, Faversham’s Board of Guardians was able to defy this ruling because a local benefactor provided a Christmas meal for working families unable to afford one. This was Henry Shepherd (1781-1862), owner of the local brewery now known as Shepherd Neame and noted for wearing knee breeches long after they had gone out of fashion.
So on Christmas Day, 1848, workhouse inmates were treated to the full works – roast beef, plum pudding, beer, snuff, tobacco and oranges. Shepherd extended his generosity on New Year’s Day, giving 6d to each adult and 3d to each child.
Deprivation among farm workers
However, deprivation, particularly among farm labourers who suffered from seasonal unemployment or whose jobs were being lost through mechanisation, remained a widespread problem and ensured that the union was kept busy. When his wife, Sarah, died in November 1837, George Branchett was forced to take refuge there, with his seven children. Two of these soon died (one from convulsions, and one from measles) within a couple of months. In February he found work, and left with three of his children. The workhouse doctor thought the other two too weak to leave, and when they did, a few weeks later, they were soon dead.
So cruelly bereaved, George took to religion – or at least to the cult of ‘Sir William Courtenay’, really a former wine merchant called John Nichols Thom, who claimed to be the reincarnation of Christ. From a comfortable middle-class background in Cornwall, Courtenay had settled in Kent, where he saw his mission as taking up cudgels for the working class, particularly unemployed farm labourers. After appearing in court unsuccessfully as lay advocate for a group of smugglers, he was convicted of perjury and put in the county lunatic asylum. Released, he came to live with a Hernhill farmer, and began to recruit a private army. George joined this and became his right-hand man. In the Battle of Bossenden Wood in Dunkirk in May 1838, both he and Courtenay were killed. The cost of his coffin and burial was met by the Faversham Guardians.
William Price was Courtenay’s standard-bearer. He was slightly luckier – he was unhurt, but was sentenced to ten years’ transportation, to Tasmania. This left his wife, Mary, with no means to support herself or her three children. For a while they coped, but in 1842 were forced to seek entry to the workhouse. Mary and two of the children ran away in 1845. She found her way to Brighton, where she worked as a charwoman. The family was not reunited till 1850 or 1851 when her third child gained release.
Early in the twentieth century, workhouses officially became known as ‘poor law institutions’. However, the old name lingered on till 1929, when by statute, management was transferred from local boards of guardians to county councils. The complex of buildings at the end of Lower Road now came to serve as a hospital and residential home for the elderly. It was renamed Bensted House, after a former chairman of the local board. Any stigma that had attached to it now vanished, and it became a much-loved feature of the local scene.
Lionel Lewis, from Tredegar, had made a career in what are now termed the social services, and married a nurse. In 1940, they were appointed master and matron of St James’s Hospital, Gravesend, another former poor law institution. Five years later, they accepted Kent County Council's invitation to take up similar appointments at Bensted House, in charge of nearly 300 patients and residents and more than 80 staff.
Like the monasteries that had looked after the sick and the aged in largely self-sufficient building complexes, Bensted House had its own sizeable chapel, a kitchen garden and a laundry; pumped its own water from a deep well; kept its own pigs; and baked its own bread. For a while, it even had a local baronet on the staff.
With unforbidding buildings in semi-rural surroundings, it was a welcoming haven for patients and residents. Its sunny courtyards and colourful flower beds were at their best on its popular annual open days, at which there was a carnival atmosphere.
However, its buildings were outmoded and hard to maintain to modern standards. It closed in the late 1980s, and was demolished in 1991 to make way for a small housing estate, where Lewis Close commemorates the dedicated work of Lionel Lewis and his wife. You can read more about it in Lionel’s Requiem for a Workhouse, on sale at the Fleur de Lis Heritage Centre, Preston Street, at £9.99 (£11.50 by post in UK).
Shirley Smyth’s The Faversham Poor in the 18th and 19th Centuries (Faversham Papers No 28) is on sale at the Fleur de Lis, Preston Street, at £3.95 (£4.95 by post in UK)
John Stevens’s Faversham Union Workhouse: The Early Years (Faversham Papers No 80) is on sale at the Fleur de Lis at £4.50 (£6.50 by post).
The records of the Faversham Union Workhouse / Bensted House are held at the Centre for Kentish Studies (i.e. County Record Office) in Maidstone, Kent.